The Excavation

Joseph Roth

translated by Michael Hofmann

The summer lay there, waiting to finish. Autumn was when the strangers were expected, the hop merchants from Austria, Germany and England, the rich men off whom many people in our town made their livings.

The summer lay there, and it spawned various illnesses. People got belly-aches and died from eating rotten fruit, the water ran out in the wells, a couple of pine forests burned down, and the dry grass on the steppes caught alight. At night, the horizon was red, and there were acrid fumes in the air.

We kept getting new visitors to the morgue. The authorities announced that the water was dangerous. We drank hot tea, and avoided cherries, even sour cherries. The apples and pears were not yet ripe.

A lot of people went to the steam baths, to sweat out the poisons. Frau Bardach, the owner of the baths, was kept so busy that she fell ill. Another two weeks, then she was dead, and she was buried in the Jewish cemetery before her son could get there, her son out in the wide world who wrote to her a couple of times a year.

His uncle, Frau Bardach’s brother, was a rich timber merchant in Vienna. Wolf, his nephew, had crossed the border to join him when still a boy.

It was said he had become a great lawyer, a celebrated man. Everyone was eager to see him.

He came. He really was worth seeing. Could that gentleman really be a son of our town?

Wolf Bardach was not merely wide and fat, with glinting spectacles in the middle of his face, with a stiff grey hat perched on his head, with shiny red cheeks – Bardach also wore light check trousers. They were the first such trousers that had ever been seen in our town, not even the Count had such a pair.

Bardach inherited a large fortune. Steam baths are a good business. If Bardach had stayed to run his mother’s business, he would have made millions within a few years.

He had no shortage of advisers either. People who had known Wolf Bardach when he was a little boy came to him with propositions. Wolf Bardach was staying in a hotel, oh, what a hotel!

Because of course we had a hotel, it stood at the end of the street that led to the station. A simple little house, with a bar in the middle, and a ridiculous sign over the door. It showed a fat knight, holding a beer tankard aloft in his right hand, while his armour vainly strove to restrain his bulging gut.

The hotel had no more than three rooms. Each of the rooms was heated by a bad stove. None of the rooms had a bed with a mattress in it. All the beds had straw sacks.

There will have been vermin as well. It was known as The Cockroach Arms. In fact, the hotel was called The Drunken Bear. That was where the great lawyer Wolf Bardach stayed, the famous man, the man in light check trousers.

He took all three rooms for himself. There was nowhere left for any other visitors. Even rich people who came to our town were forced to stay with our two bakers, who let out their beds at night, while they did their baking.

It was probably the pitiful condition of the tourist facilities in our town that persuaded the attorney to build a new hotel.

He decided to build a hotel along American lines. He wanted a hotel such as you might have found in New York City.

Wolf Bardach sold the steam baths and his mother’s house. He bought five little houses, and had them torn down.

It wasn’t just the houses themselves that cost money. The demolition cost as well. Because on average three families lived in each of the five houses, and because each family had lots of children, Herr Bardach had to build tenements to rehouse all these homeless people.

So there was work in our town. The oldest men, men with white beards, men you would have called on at most to fix your stove in winter, now clambered up and down scaffolding poles. They were like bearded weasels.

I too found work. I had a notebook, and wrote down metres and centimetres and kept a tally of planks, posts and bricks.

I wasn’t the only one either. There were other intelligent young men with notebooks with me.

We were indispensable.

The hotel was to be five storeys high. It was the tallest building anywhere within ten miles.

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